“The Equalizer” is a stylish revenge action picture disguised as a character study. Initially intriguing but increasingly numbing and repetitive as little changes after the first action set-piece, the interesting character study gives way to a routine albeit fanciful actioner positioned as a Sergio Leone western set in modern-day Boston.
“The Equalizer” marks a reteaming Denzel Washington and his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua — for which Washington won an Oscar, remember — on a film version of the late ‘80s TV show.
Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2”) borrow from all over — the Zen-like approach of an action hero from Asian martial-arts films, the instant sizing-up of dangerous situations and fast-slow fight choreography from Guy Ritchie movies and the fearless calm of Sean Connery’s James Bond or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
The first act builds up intrigue over the mysterious, quiet middle-aged man at the story’s center. Washington’s Robert McCall lives a solitary life in a spartan Boston apartment, works at a Home Mart mega-store and observes fastidious health habits from food to exercise routine.
Unable to sleep at nights due to unknown demons, he slips out to an all-night diner right out of Edward Hooper where he sips tea at his usual corner table and reads Hemingway and other great authors. His only conversation happens with a worn-out teenage hooker, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), for whom every night is apparently a rough one.
Then her Russian pimp — the bad guys in nearly all action movies these days are Russian if you haven’t noticed — beats her badly enough to send her to ICU. McCall tracks the gang down to their glitzy restaurant/club and politely asks to buy her freedom.
When scornfully turned down by a sneering boss and four henchmen reminiscent of the smarmy bad guys in old Eastwood movies, he takes them down, one by one, in a stylized action sequence.
So who is this guy? This gets answered when he visits the immense country estate of an ex-U.S. intelligence chief and her husband (Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman). Yep, he’s a retired secret op, which fans of the old Edward Woodward-starring TV show already know.
Even that really doesn’t explain his supernatural fighting abilities. He is a one-man army that pretty quickly dismantles the entire East Coast Russian underworld.
Its Moscow head dispatches its chief enforcer, a psychopath named Teddy, played with steely grit, smarts and nasty wit by veteran actor Marton Csokas. He’s a scary dude and kills any number of people to track down the unknown assailant but is continually frustrated by McCall.
At this point McCal ceases to be a character but more a romantic Grim Reaper of vengeance. He no longer intrigues you other than for seeing how he remains several steps ahead of the many villains including corrupt cops and how he sends every gangster to the mortuary.
The film feels no obligation to explain the superhuman ability to equalize a literal army or the Boston police’s lack of curiosity over a man who kills so many local residents.
As for the latter, the Equalizer leaves few witnesses alive, of course, but in a final set-piece in the mega-store hostages and a security guard (Johnny Skourtis), whom McCall has befriended earlier, all know who rescued them.
Nope, once the Russian mafia is dismantled, McCall is back shopping groceries— no doubt organic — at a neighborhood store and resuming his solitary life unmolested by any police inquiry.
The film is certain to be popular, a kind of counter-programming against the more adult, serious Oscar-contenders of the fall season, and Washington’s charisma carries the day.
Perhaps memory ill serves and “Training Day” wasn’t as good as it originally seemed. But since that 2001 film, Fuqua has made a fistful of uninspired movies that fail to live up to that early breakthrough. “The Equalizer” will continue to corral him in unthinking action flicks that occasionally show flashes of style but little intelligence.
(Seemingly occupying the same general storyline about a quiet man amid loud gangsters and vile punks, the current film “The Drop” shows how you can achieve the same levels of suspense and intrigue without resorting to nonsensical action.)
The film is well made with Mauro Fiore’s cinematography eye-catching and John Refoua’s editing making those set-pieces really shine. And kudos to stunt coordinator Keith Woulard and his many stunt men and stunt doubles for superb action choreography.
Opens: September 26, 204 (Columbia Pictures)
Production: Columbia Pictures presents in association with LStar Capital and Village Roadshow Pictures an Escape Artists/Zhiv/Mace Neufeld production
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk
Based on the television series created by: Michael Sloan, Richard Lindheim
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan
Executive producers: Ezra Swerdlow, David Bloomfield, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: John Refoua
R rating, 131 minutes